Editorials - 20-04-2021

Their rights, privacy, and well-being must be protected in digital environments just as they are in the physical world

We are now living among history’s very first “AI” generation. From the Alexas they converse with, to their robot playmates, to the YouTube wormholes they disappear into, the children and adolescents of today are born into a world increasingly powered by virtual reality and artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is not only changing what humans can do, it is shaping our behaviours, our preferences, our perceptions of the world and of ourselves. Older people still remember life before AI and the digital world — our references, anchors and pole stars pre-date the fourth Industrial Revolution. Not so for the millions of children and adolescents who were born into it. What does this mean for them, and for us — their parents and guardians?

The task ahead

Doubleimperatives — this would mean getting all children on-line and creating child-safe digital spaces

One of the most pressing concerns is that not everyone can tap into the opportunities offered by this transformation. According to UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as many as two-thirds of the world’s children do not have access to the Internet at home.

In addition to closing the digital divide, we need to better protect children and adolescents online; but how does one childproof AI? How do we encourage and support the tremendous good AI can do for children’s growth and development, while simultaneously mitigating the harm? And how do we equip children and young people with the knowledge, tools and awareness to protect themselves?

In the old-fashioned physical world, we evolved norms and standards to protect children. For instance, there are policies and protocols for a child travelling alone as an unaccompanied minor. Parents are understandably reluctant to let their children be photographed by the media, and in many countries, news outlets blur children’s faces to protect them. Where are these protections online?

The virtual world is full of unsupervised “vacations” and “playgrounds” — with other children and, potentially, less-than-scrupulous adults, sometimes posing anonymously as children. While video gaming and chat forums like Fortnite: Battle Royale, to name one popular example, offer an online space for children to socialise with their friends, multiple reports identify such virtual playgrounds as “honeypots” for child predators. Short of banning screen time entirely, parents are hard-pressed to keep tabs on just what their children are doing online, and with whom. With online homework, this has become even more difficult.

Right to freedom of attention

It does not help that the AI systems driving many video games and social networks are designed to keep children hooked, both through algorithms and gimmicks like “streaks”, “likes”, infinite scroll, etc. Even if this is an ancillary consequence of the underlying business model, the damage is done — children, from a tender age through adolescence, are becoming digitally addicted.

Similarly, right when children and youth are forming their initial views of the world, they are being sucked into virtual deep space, including the universe of fake news, conspiracy theories, hype, hubris, online bullying, hate speech and the likes. With every click and scroll, AI is sorting them into tribes, and feeding them a steady diet of specially customised tribal cuisine. All this is thrown at our children just when they are starting to try to make sense of who they are and the world they live in; right when it is so important to help them understand and appreciate different perspectives, preferences, beliefs and customs, to build bridges of understanding and empathy and goodwill.

Harvesting, algorithmic bias

Other insidious pitfalls also lie in the path of the Generation AI child. Today, many AI toys come pre-programmed with their own personality and voice. They can offer playful and creative opportunities for children, with some even promoting enhanced literacy, social skills and language development. However, they also listen to and observe our children, soaking up their data, and with no framework to govern its use. Some of these AI toys even perform facial recognition of children and toddlers. Germany banned Cayla, an Internet-connected doll, because of concerns it could be hacked and used to spy on children. Yet, most countries do not yet have the legal framework in place to ban such toys.

Finally, in the field of education, AI can and is being used in fabulous ways to tailor learning materials and pedagogical approaches to the child’s needs — such as intelligent tutoring systems, tailored curriculum plans, and imaginative virtual reality instruction, offering rich and engaging interactive learning experiences that can improve educational outcomes. But algorithms can also both amplify existing problems with education systems and introduce new challenges — when the pandemic caused the usual tests to be cancelled in the United Kingdom and by the International Baccalaureate board, for instance, the algorithms that served as a fallback meant thousands of students lost out on college admissions and scholarships. And unless the educational and performance data on children is kept confidential and anonymous, it can inadvertently typecast or brand children, harming their future opportunities.

Rights, protections

So, how do we balance the tremendous good AI can do for children, while keeping their unique vulnerabilities topmost in our preoccupations, mitigating inadvertent harm and misuse?

The next phase of the fourth Industrial Revolution must include an overwhelming push to extend Internet access to all children. Governments, the private sector, civil society, parents and children must push hard for this now, before AI further deepens the pre-existing inequalities and creates its own disparities. And on mitigating on-line harms, we need a multi-pronged action plan: we need legal and technological safeguards; we need greater awareness among parents, guardians and children on how AI works behind the scenes; we need tools, like trustworthy certification and rating systems, to enable sound choices on safe AI apps; we need to ban anonymous accounts; we need enforceable ethical principles of non-discrimination and fairness embedded in the policy and design of AI systems — we need “do no harm” risk assessments for all algorithms that interact with children or their data. In short, we need safe online spaces for children, without algorithmic manipulation and with restricted profiling and data collection. And we need online tools (and an online culture) that helps prevent addiction, that promotes attention-building skills, that expands children’s horizons, understanding and appreciation for diverse perspectives, and that builds their social emotional learning capabilities.

Key first step

In February, in a landmark decision, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted General Comment 25, on implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child and fulfilling all children’s rights in the digital environment. This is an important first step on the long road ahead.

The Government of India has put in place strong policies to protect the rights and well-being of children, including a legislative framework that includes the Right to Education. Laws and policies to prevent a range of abuses and violence, such as the National Policy for Children (2013), can be extended for children in a digital space.

But much more needs to be done, here in India and around the world. And in this interconnected world, the more we can agree upon multilaterally and by multi-stakeholder groups, the easier it may be to implement nationally and locally. Just as India proactively helped shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and gave the world the principle ofAhimsa,it could also galvanise the international community around, ensuring an ethical AI for Generation AI.

Renata Dessallien is United Nations Resident Coordinator, India

By steering clear of alliances and retaining autonomy of policy, India can maximise its global influence

It was clear from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s ‘working visit’ to India two weeks ago that India-Russia relations are not quite the flavour of the season.

Mr. Lavrov’s principal objective was to prepare the ground for the visit of President Vladimir Putin later this year. The break in 2020, after 20 annual summits, had provoked speculation, partly flowing from Mr. Lavrov’s criticism last year of a U.S.-led Indo-Pacific policy, drawing India into “anti-China games” and undermining the India-Russia partnership. A few weeks earlier, Mr. Putin had extolled the vibrancy of Russia-China defence cooperation. These remarks encouraged the advocacy for a shift of India’s foreign policy away from a weak and China-tethered Russia and towards the U.S.

Same narrative

The joint media appearance of Mr. Lavrov and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar did not change the narrative. They said their talks were warm, comprehensive and productive; they mentioned the time-tested friendship, energy projects, defence cooperation and Russian support for India’s manned space programme. They glossed over their divergent perspectives on Afghanistan. Phrases like “identical or similar views” did not carry much conviction. Much more eloquent than fine words was the fact that, for the first time in all his visits to India, Mr. Lavrov could not meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr. Jaishankar said he conveyed the Indian perspective on the Indo-Pacific and Mr. Lavrov said they discussed the Asia-Pacific. “Indo-Pacific” continues to stick in Russian throats. India insists that its Indo-Pacific initiatives seek a cooperative order, that the Quad dialogue (of India, Japan, Australia and the U.S.) is not the nucleus of a politico-military alliance, and that it never subscribed to the Trumpian posture (now under review by the Biden administration) of military confrontation with China. A $1 billion Indian line of credit for projects in the Russian Far East and activation of a Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor were announced when Mr. Modi and Mr. Putin met in 2019. The message was that India’s effort to restrain Chinese aggression is compatible with Russia’s vision of a Eurasian partnership. Russia remains unconvinced, either because it feels India’s words do not match its actions or because of its close ties with China.

As India-China tensions have grown, so have India’s concerns about Russia’s China embrace, encompassing close political, economic and defence cooperation (Russia accounted for 77% of China’s arms imports in 2016-20). India’s apprehensions about their technology- and intelligence-sharing were heightened by Mr. Putin’s remark that he would not rule out a future Russia-China military alliance. It is not clear whether he was stating a conviction, reassuring China or warning India and/or the West. Mr. Lavrov said in Delhi that Russia-China relations, though very close, are not “aimed at establishing a military alliance”. Mr. Modi would like this confirmation from the ultimate maker of Russian policy, when he meets Mr. Putin. He may also hear why Russia cannot see the logic of India’s Indo-Pacific actions.

Mr. Lavrov visited Pakistan directly after India — the first time a Russian Minister has done so. He received red-carpet treatment and met the Army Chief and the Prime Minister. He confirmed that Russia would strengthen Pakistan’s “counter-terrorism capability” — a euphemism used by the U.S. earlier for its weapons supplies to Pakistan. Russia is now Pakistan’s second largest defence supplier, accounting for 6.6% of its arms imports in 2016-20. Their cooperation includes joint “counter-terrorism” drills and sharing perspectives on military tactics and strategic doctrines.

At the same time, Russia remains a major supplier of cutting-edge military technologies to India. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) records that Russia supplied 49% of India’s arms imports in 2016-20. The proportion has been falling, as India diversifies its imports. Despite this, India’s second largest supplier, France, had only an 18% share. SIPRI estimates that recent orders for Russian arms could boost future import figures. This is a reality check. Defence cooperation is not a transactional exchange. Sharing of technologies and strategies is underpinned by a mutual commitment to protection of confidentiality. Sustainable defence cooperation is based on a credible assurance that what is transferred to our adversaries will not blunt the effectiveness of our weapons systems. In this already complex mix, the American sanctions legislation, CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), adds an external layer of complexity.

The criticality of geography in geopolitics is often underestimated. The Eurasian landmass to India’s north is dominated by Russia and China. Strategic and security interests in Central Asia, West Asia and Afghanistan dictate our engagement with the region and the connectivity projects linking it, like the International North-South Transport Corridor through Iran (that was discussed with Mr. Lavrov). India cannot vacate this space to a Russia-China condominium (with Pakistan in tow), without potentially grave security consequences.

The China angle

The Modi-Putin summit will tackle the “irritants” and, as before, will probably announce that perspectives have been reconciled. But such annual assertions do not convince the political, official, business, media and academic circles in the two countries, which have to sustain a major partnership.

The relationship has to be located in a broader geopolitical context. The principal element in this is the drive for superpower status of a powerful, assertive China. It is self-evident that the U.S., as the pre-eminent superpower, seeks to retard this process. In a deviation from classical geopolitical strategy, the U.S. is taking on both China and Russia (which is the lesser power, despite its military power and energy dominance), thereby driving the two together and arguably accelerating the move to bipolarity. Even so, the differentials in military, economic and political power across countries may complicate the emergence of two clear poles of the Cold War variety. A let-up in the Western hostility to Russia could add to the complexity, if Mr. Putin’s Russia takes the opportunity to loosen the Chinese embrace and position itself as a pole in the multipolar world.

India has to explore the space within these processes to maximise its global influence by steering clear of alliances and retaining autonomy of policy. The partnership with Russia will not have the salience of past decades, but will remain important for our continental interests and defence capability. The depth of the relationship will depend on the willingness and capacity of both countries to show mutual sensitivity to core security concerns.

P.S. Raghavan is a former Indian Ambassador to Russia

Governments, Centre and State, are resorting to the practice which is a usurpation of legislative power by the executive

The central government has repromulgated the ordinance that establishes a commission for air quality management in the National Capital Region, or the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance, 2020 (https://bit.ly/3duZmHW). This raises questions about the practice of issuing ordinances to make law, and that of re-issuing ordinances without getting them ratified by Parliament.

The Constitution permits the central and State governments to make laws when Parliament (or the State Legislature) is not in session. As law making is a legislative function, this power is provided for urgent requirements, and the law thus made has an automatic expiry date. The Constitution states that the ordinance will lapse at the end of six weeks from the time Parliament (or the State Legislature) next meets.

In the Constituent Assembly, while there was a discussion on how long the ordinance could remain valid (with some members asking for it to lapse within four weeks of promulgation as that would be sufficient time to call an urgent session of Parliament), no one raised the possibility of an ordinance to be re-promulgated. Perhaps such an eventuality was beyond their imagination.

What the data show

Whereas an ordinance was originally conceived as an emergency provision, it was used fairly regularly. In the 1950s, central ordinances were issued at an average of 7.1 per year. The number peaked in the 1990s at 19.6 per year, and declined to 7.9 per year in the 2010s. The last couple of years has seen a spike, 16 in 2019, 15 in 2020, and four till now this year (https://bit.ly/3go9YKf).

State governments also used this provision very often. The issue was brought up in the Supreme Court through a writ petition by D.C. Wadhwa, a professor of economics, who discovered this fact when he was researching land tenures. He found out that Bihar had issued 256 ordinances between 1967 and 1981, of which 69 were repromulgated several times, including 11 which were kept alive for more than 10 years.

A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in 1986, ruled that repromulgation of ordinances was contrary to the Constitutional scheme. It said, “it would most certainly be a colourable exercise of power for the Government to ignore the Legislature and to repromulgate the Ordinance and thus to continue to regulate the life and liberty of the citizens through Ordinance made by the Executive.

Such a stratagem would be repugnant to the constitutional scheme as it would enable the Executive to transgress its constitutional limitation in the matter of law making in an emergent situation and to covertly and indirectly arrogate to itself the law making function of the Legislature (https://bit.ly/3mXEaxc).” Interestingly, the Court pointed out that there was not a single instance of the President (i.e., the central government) repromulgating an ordinance.

The judgment did not stop the practice. Instead, the Centre also started to follow the lead of Bihar. For example, in 2013 and 2014, the Securities Laws (Amendment) ordinance was promulgated three times. Similarly, an ordinance to amend the Land Acquisition Act was issued in December 2014, and repromulgated twice – in April and May 2015 (https://bit.ly/32svBkM).

An unconstitutional practice

The matter came up again in the Supreme Court, and in January 2017, a seven-judge Constitution Bench declared this practice to be unconstitutional. The judgment concluded that, “Re-promulgation of ordinances is a fraud on the Constitution and a subversion of democratic legislative processes (https://bit.ly/3sq95Du).”

Even this judgment has been ignored. The Indian Medical Council Amendment Ordinance was issued in September 2018, and reissued in January 2019, as it was passed by only one House of Parliament in the intervening session. The current case of the Commission for Air Quality Management is even more egregious. While the ordinance of October 2020 was laid in Parliament on the first day of the recent Budget Session, a Bill to replace it was not introduced. However, the ordinance has been repromulgated now (https://bit.ly/32uEiuC).

States have also been using the ordinance route to enact laws. For example, in 2020, Kerala issued 81 ordinances, while Karnataka issued 24 and Maharashtra 21. Kerala has also repromulgated ordinances: one ordinance to set up a Kerala University of Digital Sciences, Innovation and Technology has been promulgated five times between January 2020 and February 2021 (https://bit.ly/2Q6zglJ).

Onus on legislatures, courts

The legal position is clear, and has been elucidated by constitution Benches of the Supreme Court. Ordinances are to tackle exigencies when the legislature is not in session, and expire at the end of six weeks of the next meeting of the legislature. This time period is given for the legislature to decide whether such a law is warranted. Repromulgation is not permitted as that would be a usurpation of legislative power by the executive. As governments, both at the Centre and States, are violating this principle, the legislatures and the courts should check the practice. That is what separation of powers and the concept of checks and balances means. By not checking this practice, the other two organs are also abdicating their responsibility to the Constitution.

M.R. Madhavan is President of PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi

The load on tertiary health services during the pandemic can be reduced by strengthening community health centres

The resilience of national health services is characterised by their ability to respond appropriately to epidemics, pandemics and disasters. There has been a consistent failure in India to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in the second wave. It is the responsibility of the state to first prevent the spread of a pandemic, failing which it needs to be extra vigilant in order to prevent every death from the disease. It is unfortunate that people are dying not because of inadequate solutions (technology and knowledge) for dealing with the virus but due to inadequate access (economic, physical and others) to that knowledge and technology. This is serious injustice.

A nation will face several challenges if it wants to improve an otherwise ailing health system: poor infrastructure, inadequate staff, and so on. How can we turn even the worst crisis into a sustainable opportunity?

Two approaches

There are two possibilities that exist in strengthening curative care for COVID-19. The first is a reactive approach, which is what is carried out by most of the State governments. This is done by transforming a few of the well-performing facilities at the tertiary level into state-of-the art COVID-19 hospitals. However, this comes at a cost: people are not be able to get their routine hospital services from these tertiary facilities.

At the primary level, most of the facilities created were temporary structures. They were created by hiring buildings and open spaces as COVID-19 treatment centres providing only beds. This approach of providing beds without adequate infrastructure was extensively critiqued for its inability to cater to the needs of patients in real-time situations. A slightly modified approach was to create first line treatment centres. Most of these facilities were a failure due to their inability to build trust among people as COVID-19 treatment centres. Most of them were shut down when the cases went down.

The second possibility, less tried out, is to equip the functional facilities of government health services at the secondary level and convert them into exclusive COVID-19 care centres. These could be used to treat those patients who don’t need ICU support.

As the three-tier structure of health services in India envisages, a community health centre (CHC) can potentially become a fulcrum on which the entire health system can bank on, especially during a crisis. A CHC is supposed to cover a population of 80,000-1,00,000 in rural areas. A CHC is supposed to have 30 beds with at least four specialty services and is expected to function as a first referral unit for curative care services referred from primary health centres (PHCs).

Sadly, several States have failed to develop this facility. Many CHCs are grossly underdeveloped. Over 5,000 CHCs exist in rural areas, and can they can add 50,000-75,000 beds if 10-15 beds are added in each. This facility can be strengthened to address COVID-19-specific treatment needs (primary and secondary) of the rural population, especially in States with an increasing case load and poor health infrastructure like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Feasible and sustainable solution

This can be a more feasible solution as specialists for this facility can be directed from district hospitals or medical colleges and the numbers can be managed for four-six CHCs under each district. This can be a sustainable solution as already there is a certain level of trust and functionality built into these centres as treatment centres. They have the potential to become centres for sample collection and vaccine delivery too.

These CHCs can also easily be converted into independent standalone centres for COVID-19 treatment. After the pandemic ends, they can be converted into normal secondary-level facilities that cater to other needs. This can substantially reduce the overload faced by tertiary facilities as more than the severity of the disease, it is inadequate access to timely treatment that results in several deaths. It is always possible to strengthen the PHCs nearby to cater to the needs of people for other curative care services.

For urban areas too, there is a need to develop peripheral hospitals at the secondary level within the government sector (100-150 bedded facility for every 3 lakh population), which can cater to the needs of the population during COVID-19 times. Instead of placing 500 and 1,000 beds in playgrounds and parking lots, it is important to expand beds which are effectively integrated into the existing health services. Only then will infrastructure facilities be good enough to provide effective care. This can build trust among people and contribute to strengthening health services in the long term.

Mathew George is Professor, Centre for Public Health, School of Health Systems Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Views are personal

The Ken-Betwa project will take a tremendous toll on the ecosystem, and its benefits are not certain

A river project which remained a pipe dream for more than three decades after it was first mooted may now become a reality. Last month, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and the Centre signed a tripartite agreement to transfer “surplus” water from the Ken basin in M.P. to the “deficit” Betwa basin in U.P. The Ken-Betwa project is part of the national river linking project which proposes to connect 14 Himalayan and 16 peninsular rivers with 30 canals and 3,000 reservoirs in order to irrigate 87 million hectares of land. It has the status of a national project, as the Centre will contribute 90% of the cost. It is India’s first river linking project and will take eight years to complete.

First mooted in the 1980s, the Ken-Betwa project was taken up seriously only during former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime. Since then, former Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti has been the torch-bearer of the project. The project, the government says, will enhance the irrigation potential of the water-starved Bundelkhand region in U.P. and M.P., facilitate groundwater recharge and reduce the occurrence of floods. According to the Memorandum of Agreement signed, the to-be-built Daudhan dam is expected to irrigate nearly 6,00,000 hectares in four districts in M.P. and 2,51,000 hectares in four districts in U.P. and provide drinking water supply to 41 lakh people in M.P. and 21 lakh in U.P.

Environmental concerns

However, the excitement of planners and politicians about this project, which costs Rs. 37,611 crore (2018 figure), is reportedly missing on the ground. The people of the region who are going to be affected by the project seem resigned to their fate. In public hearings held in the past, they were divided on political lines and also worried about the loss of the ecosystem and displacement.

The project was on the drawing board for years mainly due to environmental concerns. Of the 12,500 hectares of land to get submerged by the project, more than 9,000 ha are categorised as forest land. The submergence area includes a critically important section of the Panna Tiger Reserve. The Reserve is considered as a shining example of conservation after it successfully improved the tiger and vulture populations. Echoing the concerns of environmentalists, Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote to Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar asking him not to implement the project. She said “around 40% of the area of the tiger reserve will be irretrievably damaged” if the project is implemented. Also, the project may destroy about 7.2 lakh trees. South Asia Network on Dams, River and People convener Himanshu Thakkar fears that this will affect rainfall in the already parched region.

Cost and benefit

The claims of Ken having surplus water may be unrealistic as the river is not perennial — in the past sometimes, it has slowed to a trickle. Another difficulty will be that the Ken flows 60-70 feet lower than the Betwa and at least 30% of the 103 MW power generated will be used for pumping the water up. The Union Ministry and the National Water Development Agency, which is entrusted with the project, have some issues to sort out. These include getting clearance from the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, which had raised concerns about the project. The cost-benefits calculations of the project also don’t take into consideration the environmental and social impacts. Thus, the benefits do not seem certain and are far outweighed by the costs on the environment.

It is surprising that alternatives such as water-conservation and water-harvesting methods without building a dam haven’t been seriously considered in the region. Large-scale solutions such as this are not always viable and the best. Given the serious doubts about the benefits of the project and the monumental toll that it would have on the ecosystem, including on carefully preserved wildlife, the Ken-Betwa project seems like a huge, costly mistake.

Sunny Sebastian is a former Vice-Chancellor and member, Rajasthan State Board for Wildlife

India must quickly improve health facilitiesto be able to prevent deaths

After painfully negotiating numerous hurdles during the first wave that peaked in mid-September last year, India appears to have learnt little as a more ferocious second wave is ravaging the country. Precious time was wasted before critical facilities began to be scaled up to meet the demands of the second wave that is accelerating at an unprecedented pace, leading to health-care facilities being overwhelmed; the number of deaths shows a sharp growth of 10.2%. A mad scramble for hospital beds, oxygen, medicines, vaccines and even a quick funeral are witnessed in many cities. If the mindless rush for convalescent plasma and hydroxychloroquine even in the absence of any evidence of benefit was seen last year, there is now hysteria to get remdesivir for hospitalised patients, leading to drug shortages. Though a small trial did show that the drug shortened the time to recovery, the World Health Organization’s large Solidarity trial found no evidence of its benefit in reducing mortality, initiation of ventilation or substantial reduction in the time to recovery. Being an intravenous injection, remdesivir can be administered only in hospital settings, and any benefit might be seen only in moderately sick patients. Due to an acute shortage of beds, the disease in most patients is often severe at the time of admission. The Health Ministry’s July 2020 COVID-19 clinical management protocol does suggest that remdesivir may be considered in patients with moderate disease. But steroids such as dexamethasone may be better at helping patients on oxygen support or on ventilator support from progressing to respiratory failure and death.

The first wave in India and elsewhere clearly highlighted the weaknesses in health delivery. Yet, nearly a year after hospitals were stretched beyond capacity and beds and medical oxygen supplies were in short supply, no attempts have been made either by State or Union governments to significantly augment medical oxygen supplies. According to reports, the Union government took eight months to initiate steps to build oxygen generation plants that will reduce the reliance on pressurised liquid oxygen. Of the 162 plants approved, only 33 have been installed, the Health Ministry tweeted. Large buildings converted into temporary hospitals, without necessary oxygen supplies to individual beds and sufficient care workers, can at best serve as isolation centres. Despite private health facilities playing only a minor role in treating COVID-19 patients last year, NITI Aayog in a 2021 report sees it as a priority to get private players to invest and expand in Tier 2 and Tier 3 locations. With the virus unlikely to be eliminated in the near future, being better prepared with vaccines and health-care facilities will be a prudent way to save lives.

The RBI needs to ensure tighter oversight over large-value credit-related corporate frauds

The U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel’s reported decision to allow fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi’s extradition to India, three years after state-owned Punjab National Bank admitted it had been defrauded to the tune of over Rs. 14,000 crore, serves as a reminder of the urgent need to address the banking system’s vulnerability to fraud. India’s lenders have had to contend not only with a sizeable share of sour loans but also a growing number and cumulative value of frauds. The RBI noted in its latest Annual Report, in August last year, that the total number of cases of fraud (minimum size of Rs. 1 lakh) at banks and financial institutions rose 28% by volume and surged 159%, or more than 2.5 times, by value to Rs. 1.85-lakh crore in the 12 months ended March 31, 2020. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may have likely slowed the cognisance of frauds since then, the trend from the preceding years is deeply troubling from multiple perspectives. With frauds mainly occurring in the loan portfolio, the RBI observed that there was “a concentration of large value frauds, with the top 50 credit-related frauds constituting 76% of the total amount”. Also, despite the central bank having created a framework to facilitate the prevention, if not early detection and prompt reporting of such frauds, the average lag in detecting these transactions was 24 months during 2019-20. And most disturbing was the RBI’s finding that in cases of sizeable fraud, where the sum involved exceeded Rs. 100 crore, the average lag was 63 months, or more than five years.

While the public sector banks (PSBs) have had to bear the brunt of the hit from fraudulent borrowing — they accounted for an almost 80% share in 2019-20 — the private sector lenders outpaced their peers both in terms of number of cases and the increase in value of frauds. Even granting that fraud at a single private lender skewed the increase in cumulative value of transactions that year, a fivefold surge in value to Rs. 34, 211 crore was on the back of a 34% jump in the number of fraud cases at these banks while the PSBs suffered only a 24% increase. These facts are especially germane when one considers that the government has been on mission mode in trying to expedite consolidation among the PSBs and is ultimately looking at opening up the sector as a whole to greater private sector participation. With the RBI lamenting the ‘weak implementation of early warning signals’, non-detection of signals during internal audits and non-cooperation of borrowers during forensic audits as being among the key factors leading to delayed detection of fraud, the impending concentration of risk in fewer lenders is far from reassuring. The fallen jeweller’s case is only the symptom of a deeper malady. The RBI as industry regulator needs to walk the talk and ensure tighter oversight. Any laxity threatens overall financial stability.

“New India” is somewhat concerned at the growing tendency to deify Mr. Gandhi. Our contemporary may not believe it, but it is possible that Mr. Gandhi himself, who lacks the self-assertiveness necessary to all true latter-day prophets, is quite as much concerned at that tendency. Nevertheless human nature being what it is, men are always apt to reverence a perfection to which they may aspire but cannot attain. The gospel preached by Mr. Gandhi is one so closely attuned to the Indian temperament and traditions that his modern attempt to translate it into our society and politics is regarded as something infinitely higher than a mere political weapon. Thus side by side with the political aspect of the movement there evolves another which is not concerned so much with Mr. Gandhi’s ends as with his methods. His fearless insistence for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, his untiring emphasis of the vital importance of non-violence in thought and deed and last but not the least his condemnation of the materialistic outlook upon life which has crept like a canker upon India’s mentality are in themselves themes sufficiently inspiring to arouse the enthusiasm of a people who have not yet outgrown their heritage of a certain other worldliness in their mental vision.

Israel has offered military help and diplomatic recognition to the new Provincial Government in East Pakistan. Despite its plight, the independence movement now fighting for its life against the Pakistan armed forces has turned it down [Jerusalem, April 19]. Contacts between Israeli officials and representatives of the “Democratic Republic of Bangla Desh” were made on an informal and indirect basis. A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry source told an A.N.S. correspondent in Jerusalem yesterday that overt support and recognition would be “the kiss of death” for Muslim East Bengal. Jerusalem would avoid any move likely to embarrass the Bangla Desh leadership and the whole question of aid and recognition had been handled with great care in order to avoid damaging the interests of the Bangla Desh movement. But he confirmed that any formal request by Bangla Desh for Israeli recognition “would be considered sympathetically.”